The Way Things Had Been

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“He’s dead, Mother. Has been for two weeks. He can’t touch­ us any more. Never again. We have to put it all behind us. It is­ going to be hard. But it is either that or go mad.”

“Put it behind us? Don’t be a fool. Put twenty-five years­ of hell away - it’s not possible. Especially when each day we­ have to pretend we don’t notice the averted looks of our­ neighbours. When we never get served in a shop until they can’t ­help doing so. When all the while they are whispering about us.­ Pointing us out. The wife and daughter of Tom Arnold. Saying we­ must have had a hand in it. Must have been part of what they were doing.”

The woman in the chair shook with the intensity of her­ emotions as she shouted the words. The daughter shook her head­ dumbly, stubbornly.

“If we don’t then we are condemning ourselves to the same­ hell he kept us in. He will have won because we are unable to­ walk out of our prison even though the door is standing open.”

She got up and walked across the tiny lounge. Without really­ thinking about it she pulled the curtain back. Looked out into­ the street. A tiny, mirthless smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “Remember the sermon that was preached last Sunday?”

“No. I gave up listening to the sermons Rev. Soames preaches.­ They all seemed to be directed at us.”

“Oh, I think he was doing the same last Sunday. But he is­ trying to help. That’s why he preached on the good coming out of­ evil.”

The older woman sagged back in her chair. The brief flash of­ anger burnt away. “Good - out of what we have been through? Are­ still going through?” Her face twisted in a grimace that was no­ smile. “Have you had a good look at yourself - or me ? Compare us­ with ordinary people in the streets. I am forty-six. My hair is white. I look and act like a woman of sixty. I am useless. Burnt­ out. And you, May?”

She saw her daughter’s hand twist the cloth of the curtain.­ The mother’s face softened - her voice was gentle.

“Take a look at yourself. When did you ever have a decent­ dress to wear? Have you ever had your hair done? Do you think­ that it is attractive hanging lank, straw-like around your face.­ Or is it that you, like me, don’t care?Want to avoid looking­ attractive - just in case they....”

The mother shook her head in frustration. “For years he­ treated you as a drudge - and you acted and may even think like­ one. Yet you are only twenty-three. Only once did you have a­ break. When he and I - went away that time. You had more than six months. I expected you to run away. But you couldn’t - could you?­ You had no more fight in you than I did.”

“I nearly did. But...”

The mother did not hear her. She was lost in almost­ forgotten years. Eyes clouded. “I was only twenty when I met him.­ I was sitting on a bench in the park - eating my lunch...”

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He was slim and polished. Dressed as fashion then dictated ­in flannels, blazer, straw boater and a cane. Insolent eyes in a­ white face. Thin lips under a pencil line moustache. He ignored­ the empty benches and walked straight over to where the pretty­ girl sat.

“May I share this bench with you, ?” he asked with a little­ bow.

She coloured under his bold appraisal. “Yes, yes, of course.­ I was just about to go any way.”

“Oh, you can’t do that. If you did I would think that I had­ driven you away. And I could never forgive myself for that.”

She was shy and innocent. No match for the practised­ charmer. In the weeks that followed he swept her round a whirl of­ parties, dinners and shows. All the while probing, suggesting.­ Playing with her emotions. But he could not overcome the­ restraints of a strict upbringing and her own strength of­ character.

He should, of course, have dropped her when he failed to ­seduce her. Gone on to look for easier conquests. She held out­ nothing for him. No money - only the excitement of her lush body.­ The challenge of her refusal. The urge of his desire and need to­ break her resistance and to have her.

So he married her.

His charm and mask never lasted the brief honeymoon. All the­ dream castles, tentatively built in her mind, were demolished one­ night. He had been gone the whole day - and not said where he had­ been. Now he sat in a nearby chair watching her brushing her hair­ as she prepared for bed. She saw his eyes in the mirror of the dressing table. Eyes which held a curious look that frightened­ her.

“I want your jewels, my sweet.”

She hadn’t turned around. Just watched his reflection in the­ mirror. “I don’t understand. What do you want with my jewels? I­ only have the ring you gave me and the few things my mother left­ me.”

His thin lips twisted into strange shapes. “You can keep the­ ring. But I want the rest of the stuff.”

“Why?”

“To sell them, my dear. To sell them.”

“Sell my mother’s jewels?” she said stupidly.

“Right. The hotel will expect to be paid and I will need­ quite a lot for the races tomorrow.”

“I still don’t understand. You told me that you were well­ off. That you had a good job at the bank. That you...”

His shout of laughter cut her short. “You silly, gullible­ fool. I could not believe it that you would swallow my tales so­ easily. I have no job - call me self employed. And my work is­ parting the fool from his money. Which is very easy.”

She nearly fainted then and her breasts heaved beneath the­ flimsy covering of her nightdress. “You mean that you are a - are­ a....”

“Are you looking for the word crook ? Some call me that.­ Some call me a swindler - because they lost money when they­ thought that they had more brains than I. Some call me a con man­ because I take their money when they expected to take mine. But I­ call myself a financier - because I deal with other people’s­ money - and my wife’s jewels.” And his jeering laugh was the last­ thing she heard as she slid to the floor in a faint.

She stayed with him in the time that followed - as the hell­ grew each day. Stayed with him because there was no place else to ­go and her own code of marriage kept her at his side. Stayed and­ put up a pretence that fooled no one - not even herself.

And then the baby came - the result of those nights that she­ had to endure. Maybe that was why she turned herself into the­ sort of woman who no longer excited him. A woman he no longer­ needed as a woman. A woman who he could not use in his schemes of­ self enrichment.

Why he remained with her was a mystery only understood in­ some dark chamber of hell. But he did. Using the mother and the­ daughter as mere house drudges to cater for his comfort.

Now he was gone...

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The woman in the chair turned her eyes to the girl­ by the window. "Do you remember the first day that he brought­ Nelson here ?” she asked.

Her daughter nodded. "I remember.”

“Strange to think that that was the beginning of the end of­ things. The last of the old life.” She laughed - if such a­ brittle sound could be called a laugh. “Peter Nelson. In four­ months he was to change all our lives. Something we never­ suspected then.”

In fact they thought it would merely be a little worse that day, as­ they faced the two grinning men. Styles had changed and the­ husband’s outward trappings had changed with them. But he still­ bore the hungering look of the parasite. Her time taught eyes saw­ the same mark on the other man.

“Come in Peter. Meet the family. The reason for my daily­ toils. This charming hag is my wife. And that lump in the corner­ is not the kitchen skivvy but my daughter. Product of my loins­ and my wife’s labour.”

Both men had laughed. “Of course,” he went on. “My daughter­ performs the same duties as a kitchen skivvy so please get her to­ clean your shoes or any other similar chore. We must fill her­ day, mustn’t we ?”

Partners they became - working together to fleece the ­gullible fools of their world. Sharing a dream of pulling off a­ big coup. A major scam that would put them in the big time. In­ the nature of their kind they never fully trusted each other.­ But they needed the other to bolster that dream - to help build­ the dream - and then to put it into operation.

Pulling off a major scam was more than a dream for Tom­ Arnold. The dream had become an obsession. Something that kept­ him going though the days he had to endure reality. He had lived­ on the fringes of crime for a long time. It had brought him in­ good enough money - but never enough to put him on easy street.­ Never big enough so that he cut adrift from the mean life he­ lived - to enable him to venture into the realms of the really­ big stuff. He knew it would come. So much so that he kept an­ inviolate money reserve that was to finance the scam. Bring the­ dream to life. Free him from the house of his drudges and open­ the world for his feasting. Europe - America.

And finally they had it. The coup that was to set them up.­ It would cost money to put it into operation but -“the more you­ spend to set up the scam the more the fools will cough up.” That­ was their wisdom. That was their creed. And Tom had the money - ­the money that was his key to a new life.

They came home that day in high good humour. Peter paid mock­ court to mother and daughter while Tom went to get the cash he­ had stashed away for just such an occasion. Two thousand pounds.­ Two thousand pounds which would fund the scam and free him of­ this life. Free him even of the partner that he needed now - but­ not later when the score was made.

Tom went out eagerly - full of bounce. The dream tasting­ sweet in his brain already. Went to the cache of cash.

He had come back to the tiny lounge slowly - listened­ outside the door as Peter insulted mother and daughter. Then he­ had entered. Peter turned around and laughed.

“And now the cubbyhole is bare.”

Just a chance remark. And only a twisted, distorted,­ obsessed mind could turn it into anything else. But the money had­ been secreted in a cubbyhole in his den - and the cubbyhole was­ really bare.

The money had gone.

“You bastard - you took it. You robbed me. Your own­ partner.” And he had lifted gun which had also been secreted­ there and pumped bullet after bullet into the thing that had once­ been Peter Nelson.

He had only stopped shooting when the gun was empty. He made­ no attempt to get away. The loss of his golden dream had finished­ him. He had even sat silent - mute - in Court. And two weeks ago,­ before sentence was passed, he had hung himself in his cell.

The pictures passed in rapid progression through the­ mother’s mind. “I wonder when Peter took the money ?” she mused.­ “I never thought he had a chance to do so.”

Her daughter turned her head to face into the room. “He­ didn’t - not really. I did.”

There was a tangible silence in the room. Even the tick of­ the clock sounded muffled. The mother appeared to have stopped­ breathing. Only her eyes moved as she watched her daughter.

And the daughter turned her head once more and looked,­ unseeingly, out of the window. “It happened during the time you­ were away with - with him. I was thinking of running away. Even­ started making something - someone of myself. Preparing. Instead­ I met Ted. Also in the park. He was no one special. Just an ordinary man. But he said he loved me. Loved me. He was wonderful­ and I did not have the strength or the desire to resist him. I­ wanted him as much as he wanted me.

“He would have married me. Really he would have done. But he­ was killed in a motor car accident. He left me enough money to­ get away from here. Two things stopped me. I couldn’t go and­ leave you here alone - with him. And I was pregnant. I couldn’t­ run with a baby as well - nor could I bring it up here in this­ house - with him. So I had it aborted. And cried as I have never­ ever cried before. My baby.”

She moved away from the window. “I had been a fool. Took no ­real precautions - even gave my real name to the - the place­ where it was done. Somehow a man got hold of those records with­ my name. And the demands started just under a year ago.”

“Blackmail?”

“Yes - blackmail.”

“You didn’t pay, did you?”

“Yes, I paid. I knew just what that man would do to us if he­ ever found out about my - lapse. Our lives were a hell enough -­ and I knew where he had hidden his money. Skivvies do know these­ things. So I took it. I never thought he would ever be in a­ position where he would get a chance to need the money himself.­ He was just a small time crook. I paid nearly all of it away over­ these past months.”

“You fool. Once you pay they always come back. You are never­ free. Not normally - but you are lucky. Now you can tell whoever­ it is that it is all finished. There is no need for you to go on­ paying any more”

“You are right. I need never pay blackmail again. But not­ for the reason you are thinking. He will not come back anyway.”

The mother looked at her daughter with an odd look in her­ face. “Did you know who it was?”

“Yes.” The smile on the daughter’s face was nearly sweet­ now. “It was Peter Nelson.”

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